The Quiet Candidate
Substance, rather than style, may help State Treasurer and Torrance resident John Chiang win the 2018 gubernatorial race
by David Mendez
On August 13, State Treasurer John Chiang [pronounced “Chung”] stood before a small crowd in Westwood, on the final stop of a day-long journey that began on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Standing beside him was South Bay Congressman Ted Lieu, his longtime friend, who had just announced his endorsement of Chiang for California Governor in 2018.
“I met Ted about two and a half decades ago. People would tell him to go back to the place [they thought] he was from. Ted’s actually from Cleveland, Ohio,” Chiang said, drawing laughs from the audience. “I’m an immigrant to California, and regardless of where you come from, whether it’s Mexico, Canada, Brooklyn or Phoenix, what makes us special is that we’re Californians today.”
Unity has been Chiang’s theme since he announced his candidacy for governor last May. In the year that’s followed, he has been on a statewide tour to draw people to his campaign and prove he’s a fiercely-independent, fiscally-conservative Democrat who champions Californian ideals.
Like Lieu, whose stature has grown nationally as he has criticized the Trump administration, Chiang has no reservations against jabbing at the nation’s capital.
“We have people back in Washington D.C. who want to take us back to the days where you can’t see the sky, and where you can’t breathe,” Chiang said during his rally. “We have to send a clear and powerful message to D.C. that California is different – California leads. We’re aspirational, and we come together…We’re showing D.C. what they’re articulating doesn’t work. What we’re doing is showing the model for the future.”
Also like Lieu, John Chiang is a product of the American Dream. His Taiwanese parents immigrated to the United States separately and met in Cleveland. Chiang was born in 1962, in New York City. He was raised in Chicago, the oldest of four children, with two brothers, Bob and Roger, and sister Joyce. Joyce was murdered in a random attack in 1999, in Washington D.C.
“I have many good childhood memories, and many more challenging memories,” Chiang said. The U.S., he recalled, was in racial turmoil during his adolescence.
“Unfortunately, then, as today, you had people who had their perspective as to who should be in this country,” Chiang said, alluding to recent appearances of white supremacist rallies across the country.
“In one sense, it’s heartbreaking…but it strengthens my resolve about fighting for inclusiveness and opportunities for all,” Chiang said. “I know how it feels to be treated as a second-class citizen. One of the reasons I went into public service was to build a better California and a better America, so my godchildren don’t have to grow up with the same discrimination, bigotry and intolerance I faced as a child.”
He received an undergraduate degree in Finance at the University of South Florida, and went to law school at Georgetown University, eventually moving to Los Angeles in 1987.
After a stint working as an IRS tax attorney, Chiang enters politics. He counts Gov. Gray Davis, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Congressman Brad Sherman among his previous employers. Sherman’s political ambitions directly influenced Chiang.
In 1997, Sherman, then the Chair of the State Board of Equalization, was elected to represent California’s 24th Congressional District. As his Chief of Staff, Chiang carried out Sherman’s duties through the end of his Board of Equalization term. In 1998, Chiang won election to the position, which he held until he termed out in 2007.
The preceding November, he ran successfully for the State Controller office. In 2008, he attracted statewide attraction to his little-known office by blocking then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to slash state employee pay amidst the financial crisis. In 2011, he attempted to dock the wages of state legislators after they failed to finalize the state budget by the June 15 deadline, as required by a 2010 voter-approved balanced-budget law. But the court blocked his effort.
In 2014, Chiang won election to the State Treasurer’s office. Two years later, in the middle of his first term, he made the decision to run for California Governor.
Chiang, who is separated with no children, lives in Torrance, about 300 feet from the Del Amo Fashion Center. But he’s been so busy lately that he can be found working in his Los Angeles office on weekends.
“These holiday weekends are nice too because they give you a chance to catch up on work,” Chiang said just before Labor Day.
Despite his efforts over the past three years, he still trails his Democratic Party gubernatorial rivals in name recognition.
His two biggest rivals for the office, Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, were known statewide before the governor’s race began. Newsom is the current California Lieutenant Governor.
“When it comes to getting down to work, and working in a bipartisan manner to look out for the best interests of the people of the state, I think John has clearly demonstrated his strong record in doing so,” said South Bay State Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi
Muratsuchi, like Chiang and Lieu, lives in Torrance.
“I met John through my law school roommate when he came over to my apartment. I think he was working as a political aide at the time,” Muratsuchi said. “He was the same as he is now, a genuinely nice guy.”
“He’s demonstrated time and time again his intelligence, his integrity, and his independence,” Muratsuchi said. He recalled a red-eye flight one night in 2014. Then-State Controller Chiang and first-term Assemblyman Muratsuchi were among the few awake on the flight home from Sacramento.
“While the lights were out and everyone else was sleeping, he engaged me in a conversation, about the long-term challenges of the state pension program,” Muratsuchi said. “He’s genuinely, passionately interested in complex policy issues.”
“John’s challenge is that he’s not a flashy guy. He’s a down-to-earth, honest person who just wants to do the people’s work,” Muratsuchi said. “He may not score as high on flash and style, but I’m hoping people will focus on substance.”
While concerns of style over substance linger, Chiang has stood tall in the fundraising battle. He had $5.73 million in his campaign war chest, as of July 31, the most recent campaign finance reporting period. His total beats out both Villaraigosa ($4.47 million) and Orange County Republican John Cox ($2.82 million). However, Newsom’s campaign had $13.1 million.
Over the six-month period from January to July, Chiang raised $2.6 million to Villaraigosa’s $2.3. But he lagged behind Newsom raised ($5.3 million) and Cox ($3.2 million).
If the fundraising trend continues, Chiang’s ground game might have to do the brunt of the work if he hopes to continue competing against his well-moneyed opponents.
As Muratsuchi noted, that might not be a problem.
“The joke is that if you have a coffee meeting with five people in the Central Valley, and John Chiang will show up,” Muratsuchi said.
“I just enjoy being with people. I love listening to their stories,” Chiang said. “The criticism I hear is people telling me to talk more. But there’s that old saying, ‘God gave us two ears and one mouth, so try to listen as much as you speak.’”
He often asks people who speak at his campaign rallies to share their dreams.
“We get so lost in the details of our lives, and people say, ‘Oh, time passed so quickly, where did my life go,’” Chiang said. “It helps to pause and reset, to focus on what you want, what makes you happy, and what will help you get there.”
Many of the struggles Chiang hears about are rooted in financial insecurity, an issue he was familiar with growing.
“We’re trying to create a society of better opportunities. You want people to thrive, based on their hard work,” Chiang said. “But sometimes, even if you do that correctly, the strong financial foundation isn’t there…so how do we build access to opportunities that can change people’s lives?”
His platform is built on a foundation of fiscal awareness and investment. Affordable tuition, affordable housing, and a comfortable retirement are the three major pillars of his candidacy.
“Instead of just arguing about cutting taxes, it’s how we invest our money more wisely…that’s why I focus on auditing,” Chiang said. “Some people will talk about funding or financing, but it requires a comprehensive package…most public officials don’t have that in their background.”
Chiang notes that Regents and Trustees in the state’s public university system are more likely to vote for tuition increases when money is tight. That bore out in March, when both the California State University Trustees and the University of California Regents announced tuition increases of more than $270 for the next school year, bringing tuition at CSU and UC schools to approximately $5,800 and $11,500, respectively. A six-year tuition freeze, approved following years of recession-era budget hikes, ended this year.
“During the last budget cycle, my office worked on proposals to take money invested at lower rates and get higher returns,” Chiang said.
A 2014 report from the State Controller’s office noted that state pension liabilities have increased from $6.3 billion in 2003 to $198.2 billion in 2013. A 2016 Stanford University analysis places California’s unfunded pension liabilities at $992.4 billion.
Should he be elected, Chiang hopes to create a coalition of the state’s Treasurer, Controller and Governor’s offices that would share expertise with local agencies.
“Hopefully cities will have responsible officials who want to have the pension conversation before it’s too late and they don’t have time to react,” Chiang said.
He’s also interested in bringing back redevelopment agencies for local governments to help finance new housing. Redevelopment agencies were abolished by a 2010 Legislature bill.
In the meantime, Chiang has made efforts to allow developers to use tax credits for housing development.
A Sacramento Bee report draws a connection between donations made to Chiang by developers, and tax breaks those developers received to build housing projects.
Such donations are not illegal unless made with an explicit agreement of mutual benefit, but they can raise questions in voters’ minds.
“We have to live California’s values. Trump’s lack of understanding and support of the fact that this is a very diverse country…is detrimental to our nation as a whole,” Chiang said. “Talk of building a wall, both physically and economically, is nonsense.”
“We’re the number one economy in the U.S… We have a lot of immigrants from Korea, Cambodia, India, China and Japan — it makes no sense to put up walls to make it more difficult.”
The primary election is in June 2018. Chiang must finish among the top two candidates to proceed to the general election in November 2018 (unless one primary candidate wins over 50 percent of the vote). In the meantime, he is following his ground game, listening to people’s stories at groups large and small. On the Sunday following Labor Day, he met with Jewish leaders at Canter’s Deli, on Fairfax).
“Leadership speaks when it needs to. I know what my life story is, and I want to know what others’ stories are so I can get California’s leadership to make their lives better,” he said.